'Vaishnav jan to' and its unsung writer
New Delhi : What impact can a song have on an individual, particularly on somebody as iconic as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? The surreal, symbolic and sensual "Vaishnav jan to" was Bapu's favourite song and is synonymous with him even today. But who is its writer?
As somebody who grew up in India over four decades after its independence, this correspondent's introduction to "Vaishnav jan to" came at a young age and then made regular appearances here and there -- as it continues to do for most Indians. The song and Gandhi went hand in hand, and there was never a question of looking at them separately.
And then one stumbled upon a feature-length documentary titled "Gandhi's Song", which throws light on the life and times of Narsinh Mehta, one of the world's great poet-philosophers who lived in Gujarat in the 15th century.
Mehta was an exponent of Vaishnava poetry and wrote hundreds of songs, verses and ballads with great poetic and philosophical depth. However, "Vaishnav jan to" is one song that defines his perspective and has retained both popularity and relevance till today. Almost four centuries after the song was first written, it became an inspiration for Gandhi -- a ritual in his daily prayers -- and directly impacted India's freedom campaign against British imperial rule.
"Vaishnav jan to" undoubtedly influenced Gandhi to a large extent and his methods and beliefs are rooted in much of what the song preaches -- understand the pain of others; do not let pride enter one's mind; see everybody and everything equally; reject greed and avarice; speak the truth; don't lay claim to the property of others, and so on.
But many decades after the song was popularised among the masses by Bapu, Mayank Chhaya -- a veteran Indian journalist known for penning biography of the Dalai Lama, among other things -- found solace in "Vaishnav jan to" when he was coping with difficult times in the United States.
This set in motion an exercise that led him, along with a team of experts, to travel to Gujarat and document the life of Narsinh Mehta. Chhaya wrote, directed and produced the documentary, which tells viewers about the forgotten writer of "Vaishnav jan to".
But "Gandhi's Song" is not only about "Vaishnav jan to" or its writer, or the influence it had on Gandhi. Gently unfolding the aspects that defined the Indian ethos in Mehta's and then in Gandhi's times, the documentary touches on the multiple issues that find mention in the song and then draws an almost abstract narrative about what may have led to the song taking the shape that it eventually did.
The just-over-an-hour documentary features leading Gandhian scholars and experts, who share their thoughts and understanding of the song, pointing out that the solutions to the many perils to our existence today, are hidden in the treasure troves of ancient Indian scriptures and writings.
Chhaya's work exemplifies the virtues of objective journalism and scholarly research, given that the documentary's subject is not one that would easily draw the attention of viewers. "Gandhi's Song", however, manages keeps its viewers engrossed, enlightens them and yet leaves it to their good sense to perceive the lessons that find mention in the song -- propagated and popularised by Gandhi.
"Gandhi's Song" is available for download for $10 at vimeo.com.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at email@example.com)